Russian-Israeli relations under the microscope
According to media reports, Israel will host Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin in the first few weeks after his inauguration. This will be his second visit to Israel, with the first taking place in 2005. The timing of Putin’s visit, which is scheduled right after a trip to the U.S., has sparked speculation about the meaning of this move.
It is clear that this visit, if it takes place, will reflect the importance Russia attaches to the Middle East situation in general and to bilateral relations with Israel in particular. Generally hailed as successful, these relations still leave room for improvement. The two states have signed agreements in many spheres and their bilateral trade is impressive, which reflects their ongoing political, economic, demographic and cultural efforts. And yet, the partners also experience constrains due to the lack of significant differences on trade, economic and legal issues. In the political sphere, over the past years the two states have found themselves on opposite sides of several key regional issues.
The bond between the two states was formed by the over a million Jews from the former Soviet Union that emigrated to Israel in the last 20 years, who keep their roots and heritage alive. Members of the Russian-speaking community hold influential political posts and have integrated into Israeli economic, scientific and cultural life, thus forming a bridge between the two states and promoting closer ties.
However, as important as bilateral relations might be, they are still secondary to Israel’s role in Russia’s comprehensive Middle East policy. Generally speaking, Moscow has always regarded Israel first and foremost in the context of its regional and political considerations, using it to promote Russian and Israeli regional and global interests.
In light of the uprisings that have been sweeping the Arab world since 2011, Russia and Israel find themselves in the same boat – facing a common challenge, namely, radical Islam. The Arab Spring, which poses threats to both states, has impacted both Russian and Israeli positions and achievements in the region. The following aspects of the Arab Spring shape Russia's policy in the area: the ouster of old regimes and the rise of Islamists in government; Russia’s isolation in the eyes of the international and Arab communities (Moscow is perceived as a supporter of the oppressive regimes); the looming threat of militant Islam to Russia (the concern that the Arab Spring might spill over into Russia’s sphere of influence); and the changing position of the Sunni bloc that ‘bares its teeth’ to Moscow, as well as the changes in Turkish regional policy, which present challenges both to Russia and Israel. The above circumstances force Russia to look for new solutions in its effort to recover its status in the region.
Given that the Middle East is once again becoming an arena of competition between Russia and western powers (read the U.S.), Russia’s best option might be to promote its interests in the region and recoup its real or perceived losses by looking for alternative partners, acting as the architect of new blocs. Moscow's desire to deepen its comprehensive ties with Israel reflects its desire to put this country center stage. Therefore, relations with Israel seem to play a leading role in acute regional issues.
Having said that, this doesn’t mean that Russia will abandon its present stances on issues like the conflict with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or supporting ruling regimes (whether diplomatically or militarily). In these issues Moscow will act in accordance with its multi-vector foreign policy – working with all sides, backing its allies and simultaneously holding talks with the opposition.
But it seems that Russia is now interested in taking part in the emerging alliance of Israel, Greece and Cyprus, using this framework to boost its authority in the region, securing its position in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as promoting its economic interests, mainly in recently discovered gas fields (particularly given the fact that Russia’s gas titan, Gazprom, is expressing interest in those energy resources), which are partially challenged by Turkey. In addition, this alignment could be used as a tool to prevent the spread of Islamism and the neutralization of the Turkish threat (along with other regional players in their geopolitical ambitions).
Under these newly emerging conditions, Russia sees Israel as a potential asset in its efforts to solve the country's economic, political, strategic and security problems. Israel is regarded as a strong regional player able to dictate the rules of the game, exerting influence on its allies (and allowing Russia to integrate into regional processes on an equal footing with the U.S.). For Israel, Moscow’s current political situation presents an opportunity to try and draw Russia over to its side and scrap its support for anti-Israel players.
Of particular interest is Moscow’s stance on Iran. At the first glance it seems Russia's diplomatic efforts are aimed at protecting Iran from an attack. But Russia might see benefits in changing this position, using its arrangements with Iran as a kind of a bargaining chip in a bid to promote its own geopolitical interests.
Moreover, Russia might use the recent rift between Israel and the United States to lure Israel into some sort of new alliance like the one mentioned above. But despite certain disagreements in the U.S.-Israel relations, the possibility of a chasm is highly improbable. Israel sees itself as a loyal partner of the US, and it seems unlikely that it would be willing to turn its back on Washington in favor of Moscow. On the other hand, one can't exclude the possibility that Israel might be interested in adding Russia to its circle of allies as part of Israel’s own multi-vector foreign policy.
In conclusion, Putin’s expected visit comes amid a realignment of forces in the Middle East, with Russia willing to reassess its foreign policy in order to meet emerging political challenges. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that Russia is willing to strengthen cooperation with Israel in a bid to promote and defend its national interests. Considering the strong spiritual, historic, cultural and political ties between the two states, coupled with a mutual threat and a range of common interests, Russian-Israeli partnership has the potential to benefit both countries. Moreover, in view of the rapidly changing balance of power in the Middle East, this alliance could become a new factor of influence in this unstable region during a time of great uncertainty.
Zvi Magen Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.